Not everyone is willing to make a plea with crack dealers to stop selling to teenage boys--but Rob Bender is.
He began his career in social work at a volunteer level as he built on his four-year psychology degree with further training and a master's degree in social work. He now serves as the supervisor of the Multi Systemic Therapy Program and the Juvenile Sex Offender Containment Team for a county circuit court Juvenile Probation Department serving the Chicago suburbs. That's government lingo for hard-core therapy for hard-core cases.
Rob earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Illinois Benedictine College (now Benedictine University), then sought further training at the community college level on a part time basis to gain Certified Addictions Counselor (CADC) status; the certification required coursework, an internship, a state test and hours in the field. He then embarked on earning his master's degree in social work from Aurora University while working full-time in the field, a period he describes as a "three-year marathon." Upon completing the master's program, he completed the 'hands-on' internships required and added Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and school social worker (Type 73 license) to his list of credentials in the field.
His achievements include heading research, development and implementation of a school-sponsored, Medicaid-funded home-based family therapy program targeting youth at-risk for failure due to drug abuse and behavioral problems. The program maintains a success rate of greater than 70% in improving school performance, reducing discipline action, reducing drug use and improving family functioning. He similarly supervises the MST program in his current job with the Juvenile Probation Department, which has maintained a better-than 70% success rate, has significantly reduced recidivism and placement rates for high-risk youth and has played an integral role in a $1 million reduction in the annual cost of the department's Care and Support efforts.
Rob's social work career has led him to positions with group homes, juvenile behavioral clinics, elementary schools and finally into the court system's juvenile department. He now is helping to lead an effort which he hopes will result in systemic change in the way the schools, law enforcements and practitioners address juvenile drug and alcohol addictions.
You & Your Career
Tell us about your career. How did you break into the field?
I earned my four year-degree in psychology and was trying to find work, but nothing was coming together too easily. I thought I was going to go into business, so I started getting my MBA and began a job at ATT in the mail room. That's when I realized I was missing what I had enjoyed from the psychology coursework, and I decided to consider pursuing a career in the field.
I researched my options by talking to various people in the field, and they would refer me to others to talk to. I found with a four-year psychology degree, you're typically limited to entry-level positions. To do anything beyond that, you need the graduate school and the license. Basically, I was advised to seek certification in addictions counseling at the community college, College at DuPage, to be able to work in the field, and then to seek my master's part-time. Everyone I talked to told me, "without your master's, you're not going to be able accomplish much."
So I took it step by step. I started volunteering at a group home for boys who needed shelter or were wards of the state, which led to a job offer. It was a great way to hang out in the summer on the beach with the kids and to work on my basketball game. But it also felt like a calling; it was a fit. Kids are fun. I went to get the CADC first, on a part-time basis for about two years, and kept working at the group home, where I was promoted to being a crisis counselor, the first step of working the floor of a group home in a counselor role.
As the crisis counselor, if the police had a teenager who had run away or was locked out of the house at 3 a.m., I'd get paged and would go to the police department, do crisis counseling, try to resolve the situation. I carried a caseload, and provided for periods of three months or longer, working with the family so to try to avoid the crisis again.
How did your career unfold from there?
I then had the opportunity to change positions and work with kids on juvenile probation - gang bangers, hard core gang members, delinquents - who were court-ordered to go to an all-day treatment program. We'd do counseling, group sessions.basically I would get verbally abused all day, as court ordered counseling doesn't go too smoothly when they don't want to be there. It was a really tough crowd. And I found that I loved it. The tougher and the harder the kids were, the more I loved it I think. Those were my favorites. As long as when you walked out, the kids said "that didn't suck,' that's the first step to reaching them. I moved up the hierarchy there and started graduate school.
Then I shifted to working at a new residential program being established at Linden Oaks Hospital to treat the same type of patient population; they would be in the hospital during the day and in classes at night. I worked there for three years while I completed my master's work.
Building on an internship with adolescents, where I worked with the junior high students and their families, I landed a job as a K-8 school social worker. It was a challenge at first, because I had to re-learn how to communicate with very short people who didn't talk very well. At the same time, I started my private practice. I worked at the school for a year, conducting instant wellness screenings for kindergarteners and grade schoolers as well as prevention and education groups for kids up to eighth grade, working closely with teachers and class specialists.
Continuing with my private practice, I left the school district to accept a position which allowed me to be coordinator of the residential treatment program for a large organization, and pay the mortgage! After six months, I became the director the adolescent program, which I did for several years.
Tell us about your current role with the Department of Juvenile Probation.
The department recruited me to contribute to systemic change in DuPage County by helping to incorporate effective practices into the court and probation system. I saw it as a great opportunity. Illinois is one of only two states incorporating the Multi Systemic Therapy (MST) approach; eventually the system is expected to be tied to government funding in all states. MST is an intensive, home-based therapy program that utilizes a model program that is used worldwide, and had achieved incredible effectiveness ratings. Therapists go into the home to work with the family to help with the goal of keeping kids out of prisons or recidivating. Things worked out to where I moved into my current position, where I am the supervisor of juvenile probation and supervise three licensed therapists, all with master's degrees, as they conduct intensive family therapy in the home.
You work in social services and addictions counseling. What unique challenges and rewards come from working with your patients?
The cases I work with can be challenging. Not enough people want to get in the trenches. I've worked with crack-addicted mothers and teen-agers. I've gone into a crack house and gone around to dealers and said, 'Look, I don't care what you're doing, but this is my guy, and don't deal to him.' You name it.
It's a challenge and the rewards are that since few people are willing to do those things, doing it can make a difference.
Willing to walk into a crack house and ask a dealer not to deal to a certain person?
Well, it's not like it is on TV. We don't go at 3 in the morning, we go during the day to where there was dealing, and tell the dealers, 'Hey, we aren't there to cause trouble. It's all about this guy and trying to keep him out of trouble.' It was kind of cool, the kids come moping in the next day and say 'hey, no one will party with me anymore, it stinks, but it's kind of cool.' Safety first, we go in teams. Sometimes kids will even meet me at the front of their complex and walk me through, introduce me; more than once I've had kids tell me. 'I'll met you on the corner and walk you in.' It's not that dangerous, really! People in the neighborhoods know you're just there to help. There are other rewards too, sometimes I'll get calls from the parents, like one I hadn't heard from in a while, who said thanks, so and so graduated today. Things like that make you feel good. But I put the credit back on them.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future, and how does your current position help you meet those goals?
I've got some projects I'd like to see researched and printed. And a couple of projects here in the county that I'd like to see completed before I'm done.
I'd like to continue to pull together providers, educators, legislators, policy makers into a committee that decides we need to improve the way things are done. All of us, from the court system to the schools to the providers, need to agree that we need to deal with the adolescent substance abuse problem, and from there to start to identify effective practices. It's coming together nicely, and is something I'm really excited about. It's a long way from finished, but I am seeing support from schools and experts in the field at the school level and higher up, as well as decision makers at the state government level.
How does the program fit into the current direction of the field of social work?
MST is not a new type of therapy, it's a treatment system developed by a researcher who determined what therapy methods work best for high-risk, adolescent offenders. It's put it together in a way that it is heavy on outcomes and accountability. I can't just say a family is resistant to therapy. I'm not even allowed to use the word resistance. The responsibility is mine to help this family. I have to stick to the model, and constantly engage families to work with me to help identify their strengths to make strategic changes that will lower a person's risk of being detained by the department of corrections or recidivating. This type of treatment is only for high-risk, hard-core juvenile delinquents, not for someone with minor problem or typical teenage angst.
The catch-phrase is evidence-based tactics, which means only doing therapy that has been proven to work.
MST is heavy on research, on evidence-based practices. What we're doing today, will probably evolve. Students interested in doing things connected with research can look at blueprint model programs. They list all different research based programs that the government has deemed excellent to utilize; the government asks service providers to use these methods to get funding in order to ensure the results.
What ranks among the favorite achievements that you've completed in your career and why?
At the time, finishing grad school as well as a year later, when I got my license, felt like the end of a marathon that I had been running for three years. There are a number of the goals that I've set for myself each step of the way that I am achieving. My private practice is growing. I'm having some success as an administrator as well as a therapist.
What is the biggest myth about the field of psychology?
The biggest myth is something people ask me all the time: "Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?" No, that's not quite how it goes. I genuinely accept people for who they are, and see strengths in them more than anything else.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your education. How did you decide to study psychology? And how did you find a school?
I decided to study psychology at Illinois Benedictine (now Benedictine University) because I was always one to listen and genuinely be interested in helping people with what they are going through, and it seemed easy.
I received my master's degree in social work at Aurora University, which I chose because of its location and its program flexibility geared toward working individuals.
In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education in the field?
I wish I was one of those that knew from day one what I wanted to do. Then I would have gone to school and majored with an accelerated program for four years for a bachelor's in social work, put in one more year at grad level and would have my master's. Then what took me to my 30s to achieve, would have been done in my early 20s.
How can prospective students of the field of psychology assess their skill and aptitude to choose the best specialty?
If what you have is a need to be connected, to help others, you may want to study psychology, but I'd certainly encourage you to do volunteer work at a group home or similar setting beofre you commit yourself to graduate school.
If you can tolerate anybody, regardless of what their differences are, are willing to listen, to be professional, to apply basic scientific principals to how you work with people, if you have an analytical mind, and are a problem solver, this may be your field.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain field?
It depends on what your career goals are. If you are seeking a PhD with a goal of teaching, the more prestigious the school you attend, the more you'll improve your chances of getting into a good teaching university. Otherwise, it's all about the degree, the license and work experience. You also want to make sure that your school meets all of the criteria set by the state in which you plan to work so that you will be able to sit for a license after your graduate. You don't want to come up short on coursework. That happened to a friend of mine, who went to a prestigious school in New York, then was short two credits to receive his license in another state.
A final but important suggestion is to interview a professional who is currently successful in the field and ask for advice specific to your interests and situation.
How do you feel that the psychology educational system could be changed to better serve society?
We need more in the educational process that involves learning agreements established with providers. That way, students are learning and providing a service; there should be more classes like that.
The Actual Work
Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?
First, a lot of administrative functions: timesheets, calls, e-mails, supervisor and management meetings. Depending on the day, I may have clinical supervisions to do, where I review the therapists' case notes and their plans for the week, and offer them feedback. Other days I work with probation officers on high risk cases, and may go to the juvenile's home with a police officer or a probation officer. Or I may be working on a survey or research; putting together a presentation for training; or working on one of several service programs in different phases of implementation and monitoring. Then it's on to private practice in the afternoon, and sometimes I teach a class at night. Then I go home. and sometimes I have work waiting for me there, too. A good friend, mentor and first boss of mine used to say, "It's work, but the moment it's not fun, you might not want to do it anymore." No complaints. I'm doing what I want to do.
Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
It has increased access to research articles, and helped with communication with other professionals. Down the road, there may be more opportunity to provide counseling over the Internet, but there's still too much risk with that.
Best patient care tip for a novice?
You need to balance work and school. You don't want to be just going to school only, or ignore learning. Every day I go to work, I take a 'What can this day teach me?' kind of approach.
What is the current job market in the field? Five-year forecast?
It's still pretty healthy. There's a lot of opportunity for those with a four-year degree as well those with graduate school.
It's the kind of field where even when things get rough, it's still healthy. In a recession, people are stressed and they need more help from professional counselors. I don't see any significant changes, other than the results-based practice, which strengthens the field.
What are the best ways to land a job in the field? How available are internships?
Volunteer or get into a three-year internship program. Internships are very available and easy to land.
How can the reality of a career in the field of psychology differ from typical expectations?
The rewards are far fewer and in-between, particularly depending on who you work with. If you work with adolescents, you rarely see the results, as the results come when they are in their 30s and you are long out of touch.
Healthy balanced living is needed to avoid burnout. You really have to work it, because there are a lot of sacrifices on the front end of your career. And, you should be warned, you're never going to make a lot of money.